In 1993, the Washington Post published a correction to a story. The correction was rather short:
Correction: An article yesterday characterized followers of television evangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command.” There is no factual basis for that statement.
The article was by reporter Michael Weiskopf, and it was included in the story as a fact, with no attribution, no study cited or anything else. It was simply the reporter’s opinion, and that (1) he included it and (2) his editor had not challenged it was proof positive, for a lot of people, of the inherent bias against Christians by the national news media. The Post was flooded with letters, phone calls and faxed copies of master’s degrees from followers of Robertson and Falwell.
I can recall the hubbub and reading the story, and I can remember my reaction, even though I was not a follower or admirer of either man: “This is what passes for journalism these days.” I could say that, because my undergraduate degree was in journalism. And my professors would have placed a nice F if I had turned a story in that included that statement.
The world has moved on since that quote. The Christian Right is no longer, and this kind of comment is usually (and just as wrongfully) reserved today for members of the Tea Party.
I wonder what Weiskopf would have made of a statement by a French sociologist and philosopher named Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). In his book Propaganda, Ellul asserted that the people most susceptible to propaganda were not the poor and uneducated, but the more affluent and educated members of society (the so-called “elites”). And the reason, he said, was that they read more and are exposed to so much more, and could not possibly verify everything they read and accepted. What was worse was that they didn’t realize how susceptible they were to propaganda.
I was reminded of Weiskopf and Ellul when I read this week’s chapter in our discussion of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
Lewis makes that rather startling assertion that theology, in a sense, is an experimental science (I could hear the howls of the professional atheists, but the phrase “in a sense” is the telling one). Some might call it an example of Christian propaganda, but Lewis is actually rather logical about it as he describes how Christians developed the idea of a three-person God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). He compares it to how a geologist would study rocks by examining them, with no cooperation needed from the rocks; how a zoologist would study live animals (cautiously and quietly); how you get to know something about a person (with his agreement and cooperation – the initiative would be divided); and how someone would get to know more about God – when the initiative lies entirely on God’s side.
Once God takes that initiative, “The instrument through which you see God is your whole self.” That lens of the whole self may and usually does take an entire lifetime to repair and clean, because we come to this process broken and sinful.
If a reporter – as broken and sinful as the rest of us – doesn’t understand God, we shouldn’t be surprised to see boneheaded opinions made about God’s people expressed in a news article.
But to be fair, we Christians – we educated Christians – can be just as susceptible to propaganda. Last year, I was reading an article in Christianity Today about food, of all things, and stumbled over statements made as fact with no references, citations or footnotes. Like Wesikopf’s statement in the Washington Post, the statements assumed that people reading the story would simply agree, and the writer or editor or both felt no attribution was needed. They were opinion, not fact. No one, including me, challenged the statements. No corrections were run. But they were just as wrong – and prejudiced – as the one in the Washington Post.